Planting Edmonds: Keeping track of the plants in your garden

Planting Edmonds is a monthly column written by and for local gardeners.

Do you have a stack of plant tags on your garden bench? Do you remember where the individual plants are that go with those tags?

It took some time, but I came up with a system that works for me to keep track of my plants, and I’ll share it with you.

Start with a walk around your winter garden. In my garden under the grey skies of a winter day, I noticed the “bones” of each garden room. That is the hardscape — decks and fences, paths and steppingstones, large rocks and rock streams — plus pots, trellises and raised beds.

Winter bed

I also noticed the large vegetative “bones” — the towering evergreens, the huge old rhododendrons, camellias, and other big shrubs, both deciduous and evergreen. These are like old friends, and some even bloomed already in January, such as the witch hazel, viburnums, mahonias, sarcococcas and winter camellias.

Beneath these plants, the lower layers of small shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and groundcovers are just emerging and leafing out now. I look for swelling buds and plants poking a tentative shoot out of the mulch as if checking for temperature and the presence of rabbits.

The winter view of our gardens allows us to see the spaces that will fill up with understory plants. Here are two views of my winter perennial border.

In the summer view, there are many more plants and I needed to develop a system for remembering where each plant is, its name and what care it needs.

I used to have two shoeboxes full of plant tags and I thought I could remember where the plants from those tags were. I also thought I could keep all those Latin names in my head, so if someone asked me about a plant, I could identify it and tell them about it. Not a chance!

So, during those long days of the pandemic when staying home was the best plan, I created and filled two notebooks of the plants from those tags. I realized these plants depend on me to thrive, and I was amazed at how many tags no longer corresponded to living plants in my garden.

First, I made a rough sketch of my home and property (you can get as fancy as you want) and then sketched out garden beds and numbered them. It took all year to identify all the plants in every bed as they came and went through the seasons.

Next, I made a notebook page for each plant. I taped in the tag if I still had it. I took photos of the plants and made a copy for the notebook or cut a photo out of a garden magazine of that plant to have a visual reminder.

I identified the bed the plant was in and made a few notes on the approximate age. I also identified which are native plants. Now when I add something new to the notebook, I also include where I got it and the price.

The fun part was arranging all the notebook pages in alphabetical order by Latin name. Next, I created a spreadsheet with the Latin name, the common name and the bed number of each plant.

For me, this is a useful tool, since I can create lists of plants by Latin name, common name or bed number. I also keep a separate list of the plants that failed through the years which is also useful.

The last important piece of this record keeping is to make a new page as soon as possible after getting a new plant. Some gardeners take photos of the plant tags and upload them to a page in a computer file. This may be the system for you.

Any record-keeping method you decide on will give you a better way to access information about your plants. I like my hands-on notebooks and really enjoy caring for my plants more now that I can remember where they are.

I keep yearly notes about them; for instance, my Gingko tree loses its leaves every year in just 1-2 days. It has been interesting to see how close to Nov. 18 they fall each year.

Most gardeners I know change some of the plants in their gardens every year. It is delightful to try out the latest new perennial, find an exciting new color of a specimen you already love, add a new leaf texture or try different vegetables or annuals.

Of course, we all keep most of our hardworking plants if they are healthy and look good where they are, but there are hungry rabbits, slugs and snails, and insects that can damage plants beyond repair. Alas, we need to build cages, find bigger pots or just get new plants.

The trees around us — our own and our neighbors’ — keep growing and changing our shade areas. Sometimes a tree comes out of our landscape and the increased sun causes much rearranging. We all move plants around, remove plants, and head to the nursery or a plant sale just to see what we might find.

As the microclimates in our gardens change, we also need to check on how all our plants are working together. This is why your record keeping can help when you want to plant that new plant. You don’t want to dig up something already there that is not yet sprouting.

For my vegetable garden I keep a template of my six raised beds to copy and use each year to decide what to plant in each. It is useful for crop rotation, and I list the vegetables I grow each year, with space for notation on how they produced.

Annuals give us a delightful way to add new colors and textures to our gardens. We can use them in pots and hanging baskets or to add some instant color. I have kept a record of my favorite annuals, mostly with notes on how long they will keep flowering and where I use them. There have been some annuals I love at the plant store, but they don’t work in my garden.

Any notes you keep for yourself can save you from buying plants that won’t thrive in your garden. I hope I have inspired you to keep records of all the plants that work for you, and also those that don’t fit into your garden.

If you need a new plant, perhaps you will find just the right one at the Floretum Garden Sale on Saturday, May 4.

— Story and photos by by Louise Koehn

Louise Koehn has been gardening in Edmonds for 26 years. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in both Botany and Oceanography from the University of Washington in the 70s. After working on a NOAA research ship for several years she landed in Seattle and instead of settling down, she moved to follow her husband’s career, gardening through six other states. She learned different gardening styles from each region. When she did finally settle in Edmonds, she became a Snohomish Master Gardener, and recently retired from the group after 21 years. In 2014, she joined the Edmonds Floretum Garden Club.

  1. Thank you for this insightful article. As someone who has dozens of plant tags in a box, many of which have expired, I appreciate the advice and will get to work.

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